The Significance of Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel

Monday’s news of Elinor Ostrom winning the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences is still reverberating, causing much excitement. In awarding the prize, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted it is “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” It is so encouraging to see the explicit recognition, by the economics profession, of her landmark studies in the factors that encourage cooperation.

Those who have been privileged to work with her know how richly deserved this recognition is. Those who are not familiar with her work, who still believe in the inevitability of Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” have a treat in store, discovering her research. She is a brilliant scholar who can still communicate her ideas to a wide audience, an inspiring teacher and generous colleague.

I am fortunate to be in the former group. I have been following her work on cooperation for managing water, forests, and other shared resources (even the internet!) for more than 20 years. She was the founding President of the International Association for Study of the Commons (IASC), instrumental in building an organization that brings together researchers and practitioners to build understanding and improve institutions for the management of resources that are (or could be) held or used collectively by communities in developing or developed countries. I’m privileged to be the current President of IASC, able to build on the foundations of her work and that of hundreds of others who are helping to learn how to craft institutions to govern the commons effectively.

From this vantage point, let me point out two aspects of Prof. Ostrom’s work that are noteworthy, especially for a Nobel Laureate in Economics Sciences. The first is that her work is grounded in empirical observations. She draws on theory, but also questions the underlying assumptions and tests them against the actual behavior of people and institutions. She looks for the commonalities—and differences—in the way people relate to different types of resources, in developing countries as well as the US and other industrialized countries, using case studies, structured comparable data collection across sites, and experimental games, both in the lab and in the field.

The second significant aspect of her work is that she is transcends disciplines. A political scientist who wins the highest prize in economics, she works with the whole range of social scientists, but also with foresters, ecologists, mathematicians, … the list goes on. She learns from each discipline, and offers conceptual frameworks (notably the Institutional Analysis and Development, or IAD framework) that help integrate knowledge and insights. And more importantly, the combination of perspectives helps to address important practical problems of resource management and crafting institutions that are sustainable and equitable.

For those who want to learn more, a list of her key publications that are available free online is at Over 100 of her online articles are also available in the Digital Library of the Commons.

This blog entry is also posted on the website of the International Association for Study of the Commons.

See what others thought of her award:

1 Comment


This is simply too inspiring for words. I had been happy to learn of Stiglitz’s prize in asymmetries of information, and that another winner worked with behavioral economics, but now this. The Nobel Prizes to Mohammed Yunus and Wangari Maathai also were awesome.
Truly, all is not lost. RFK once said something about points of light forming a network that can create justice.